The Leisure Seeker Flawed, but Well Acted Film of Memory Loss

The Leisure Seeker (2017)
Directed by Paolo Virzi
Sony Picture Classics, 112 minutes, R (language, elder sex)

The Leisure Seeker is a comedy/romance/drama constructed around a road trip by a couple that knows that the Golden Years are about to become Lights Out for Eternity. It follows the sojourn of John and Ella Spencer (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) as they wend their way from suburban Boston to Key West in a 1975 Winnebago long ago christened the “Leisure Seeker” by the couple’s now adult children, Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney).

Director Paolo Virzi has a tough balancing act. How does one make a film about elderly people, especially when one of them (John) has Alzheimer’s, yet keep it lighthearted enough to interest an audience, but serious enough to not be insulting? It may not be possible to do so, but give Virzi credit for striking quite a few correct notes amidst the discordant ones.

Give this one some time, as it doesn’t start well. John and Ella essentially run away from home, as Will discovers when he drops by their house, wonders where they’ve gone, discovers the Leisure Seeker is gone, and freaks out. Cut to John and Ella on the road with John at the wheel. John may not have all his marbles, but after a few minor mishaps, he’s on autopilot. We learn that he was once a brilliant literature professor who adored Hemingway and that Ella was the dutiful faculty wife. She knows that his memory is on the cusp on the road to no return, so why not head for the Florida Keys to see Papa Hemingway’s home and give the old boy a late-in-life thrill? Along the way they can drive through Ella’s native South Carolina.

The early parts of the film have the feel of a geriatric caper film, but eventually it turns more poignant. Not much in this film would work were lesser actors in the lead roles. Sutherland masterfully portrays dementia as akin to a failing light bulb; that is, he blinks in and out. There are moments in which Ella wakes up, her husband is lucid, and memories flow. Then the light wobbles and fades. Ella has issues of her own; she’s very sick, hides her illness beneath a too-young-for-her wig, and she continues to play her role as John’s booster—though he doesn’t really require it—because it’s what she knows. Together Sutherland and Mirren show a side of older folks that’s seldom depicted well—an age-burnished affection made manifest by mutual respect, mannered interactions, and even physical attraction. Credit Virzi also with delving into their challenges: incontinence, blurted out secrets, a pharmacy of pills to swallow, blathering on in front of people who don’t care, and wondering if it’s time to pack it in.

It must also be said that at times the script has more holes than the Leisure Seeker’s exhaust system. We have, for instance, the clichéd sibling rivalry. Will is the son who never really got his act together, but he lives in the same town and bears the brunt of eldercare. Jane, by contrast, is the calm golden girl who followed in her father’s footsteps and is now also a literature professor. Will wants to kibosh the road trip and spends much of the film screaming at his mother to tell him where they are; Jane tells him to chill and let them have their last fling. It apparently never occurs to either of them that they know the license number and could simply ask the police to look for a rusty Winnebago with Massachusetts plates! Moreover, in road trip films the central issue is always whether or not the destination is achieved, a yes/no situation that invariably leads to padding material to stretch it to movie length. You can probably predict that some of this falls considerably shy of poignant and also occasionally stretches credulity as well as time. Cameo appearances by Dick Gregory and Dana Ivey are only loosely stitched to the film’s fabric. Of course, there is also the issue that a film seeking to be three things—comedy, romance, and drama—usually ends up having an identity crisis.

Still, it is a genuine pleasure to see two amazing actors transcend script issues. Sutherland is convincing in his portraying Alzheimer’s on the verge of when the on-off button will fail to bring light. As one whose mother made this tragic descent, I can attest that Sutherland stirred my helplessness as an observer. Mirren is equal parts determination, frustration, and resignation. Her occasional anger also rings realistic. Call it inappropriate, but it's often infuriating to be around those who forget something as soon as you say it. If you’re wondering, Mirren's South Carolina accent is better than that of a Charleston native! I could have done with about half of McKay’s histrionics, though.

Is this a good film? Objectively, it’s only half good and part are rather lame. But if you have dealt with memory loss in any form, you’ll see plenty that you recognize. It’s also nice to see older people that have agency and, yes, even sex on occasion.

Rob Weir


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